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Talking to Kids About a Parent’s Cancer Diagnosis

Contributor Cindy Moore, PhD
1 minute read
An African-American father holds his young son's hands supportively as they talk on a sofa.

Catherine, the Princess of Wales (Kate Middleton), recently made headlines when she announced she’s undergoing cancer treatment. But before telling the public, she said, she and Prince William took time to explain the diagnosis to their young children. It’s a difficult and tender situation to navigate for parents with cancer.

“There’s a natural urge to protect kids by shielding them from difficult information. But it’s hard to cope when you don’t know what it is you’re coping with,” says Cindy Moore, PhD, a Mass General Cancer Center psychologist. Dr. Moore is director of the Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program at Mass General Cancer Center, which provides support for parents with cancer.

Talking to your children about cancer is never easy, whether they’re kids, teens, or even young adults. Yet when parents are open and honest about their diagnosis, their children actually experience less anxiety over time, Dr. Moore says.

“Talking openly builds trust and helps kids adjust,” Dr. Moore adds. She shares her advice for starting the conversation:

1. Don’t put it off too long.

Many parents wait until they have a diagnosis and treatment plan in place before talking to their children. This may work well to keep children from worrying through a period of uncertainty. But kids often pick up on more than parents realize, so don’t wait too long to share. Dr. Moore suggests starting by pointing out things that led to the diagnosis, such as: “You might have noticed that I’ve had more doctors’ appointments lately, or been on the phone more than usual. I had some testing done, and it turns out I have something called cancer.”

2. Strike a balance.

Be honest, but don’t try to share every detail at once. Too much information can be overwhelming. Consider your child’s age, maturity, and personality when deciding how much to share in that first conversation. As you talk, invite and answer their questions, and ask them how they’re feeling. Remember that listening is as important as talking. If they seem overwhelmed, take a break and pick up the conversation another time.

Many patients report that positive things emerge from coping with cancer together as a family. When children go through a hard situation with people who care about them, it builds resilience and helps them grow.

Cindy Moore, PhD
Mass General Cancer Center

3. Keep communication open.

“This won’t be a one-and-done discussion,” Dr. Moore says. Plan to have several smaller conversations. Make it clear that your children can come to you anytime with questions. And remember that some children are reluctant to speak to the parent with cancer, she adds. “Let them know they can talk to a co-parent or another family member or trusted adult if they’d feel more comfortable,” she says.

4. Talk about routines.

Most kids thrive when they have a familiar routine — but cancer treatment can turn normal schedules upside down. Try to anticipate things that might change, and make a plan together about how to deal with those changes. This is a good time to identify a friend or family member who can help organize meal donations, childcare, and transportation logistics.

5. Give kids control.

When faced with a challenge, children often do better when they feel like they have some control over their lives. Whenever possible, give them choices. For example, on days you’re having treatment, they might choose to spend the afternoon at their grandparents’ house or have a playdate at a friend’s.

6. Manage emotions.

You don’t have to be a rock. Cancer is an emotional experience and it’s okay to let your kids know how you’re feeling. “Showing emotion helps validate the child’s own reaction to the news,” Dr. Moore says. But try to speak to your kids when you’re feeling calm enough to keep your big reactions in check. “You don’t want to overwhelm them and make them feel it’s their job to take care of your emotional reaction,” she explains.

7. Seek support

At the PACT program, child psychiatrists and psychologists meet with patients to provide guidance during a family’s experience with cancer. If you’re being treated elsewhere, consider reaching out to your hospital social worker, a therapist, or your oncology team for advice. PACT also offers online resources for parents to guide you in helping your children feel secure.

Speaking with your children about your diagnosis can be daunting. But being open and honest will help your child cope during this experience as well as future challenges.

“Many patients report that positive things emerge from coping with cancer together as a family. When children go through a hard situation with people who care about them, it builds resilience and helps them grow,” Dr. Moore says. “When you’re lovingly attuned to children’s experiences and actively supporting them, they can get through very difficult things.”

Cindy Moore, PhD